Belfast Telegraph

Hands off the PSNI - Police chief warns Unionists

By Liam Clarke

The head of the main police union has warned unionists against laying a claim on the PSNI, saying that was what destroyed the RUC.

Terry Spence, chairman of the Police Federation of Northern Ireland, which represents rank and file officers, said that unionist attempts to depict the police as “our force” can damage the PSNI.

Mr Spence claims that unionism’s portrayal of the RUC as a bulwark of the status quo made it inevitable that its name would be changed and its emblems dropped.

He also backed the Parades Commission as “the only show in town” against demands for its disbandment.

He warned present day unionists: “Do not try to enlist the police for your own political projects.

“In decades gone by that led to the RUC being seen to be in the pockets of one section of the community and not the other.”

Mr Spence, who served in both the PSNI and the RUC, was speaking ahead of the publication of an official history of the federation.

The book details several attempts by the police to establish their political independence going back to the 1970s.

It records that, around 1976, Don Milliken, a previous federation chairman, used a TV interview to tell Harry West, the Ulster Unionist Party leader of the day, “that the RUC was an independent police force responsible only to the law and emphatically not an extension of any political party”. Mr Milliken, speaking just four years after the foundation of the Federation, said: “We were there to serve all the people in Northern Ireland.”

The book records 700 RUC officers were intimidated from their homes when they policed opposition to the Anglo Irish Agreement, which was led by the two main unionist parties.

Alan Burnside, a former RUC reservist, has advised the federation on media relations and handled most of its publicity campaigns for the past 30 years

In a section about the Patten Reforms, which changed the RUC’s name, he tells author Don Anderson that “the more the unionists hugged us to their bosom, the more they ensured our destruction”.

Mr Spence agrees.

He said: “From the early days unionists seemed to see the RUC as protectors of all that was involved in the state.

“In reality most police officers, and many of the men and women who I served with, believed we were there to protect the community irrespective of their background.

“It is regrettable that some unionist politicians just didn’t see it like that.”

As a result, the federation itself accepted the name change and 50/50 recruitment of Catholics as necessary measures to ensure community support.

“When one looks back on what some unionists said, you can understand why negative perceptions about the police grew up amongst the nationalist community,” Mr Spence said.

In the wake of the 12th of July Ardoyne riots, Mr Spence urged unionist politicians not to try to draw the police into their campaign against the Parades Commission or to force the PSNI into taking a partisan stance.

Nigel Dodds, the DUP deputy leader, criticised Matt Baggott, the Chief Constable, for not blaming the violence squarely on republicans.

“There was no gunfire or petrol bombs from the loyalist side but they did attack the police with bricks and bottles and heavy masonry. It is right to identify that,” Mr Spence said.

He added: “There is no point in blaming the Parades Commission for the violence that has spilled onto our streets on 12th July in Ardoyne.

“This has happened year in and year out. Our view, as a federation, is that while the Parades Commission is not without its faults, it is the only show in town.”

Special But Different: The History of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland by Don Anderson will be published on Thursday, July 26

The thoughts of Terry Spence

  • ‘In decades gone by that led to the RUC being seen to be in the pockets of one section of the community and not the other.’
  • ‘There is no point in blaming the Parades Commission for the violence that has spilled onto our streets on 12th July in Ardoyne.’
  • ‘You can understand why negative perceptions about the police grew up amongst the nationalist community.’

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